Supreme Court hears arguments in open records lawsuit against Governor Reynolds

DES MOINES — The Iowa Supreme Court heard arguments in a request by the state to dismiss a lawsuit against the governor over the release of public records during the COVID pandemic.

The records were released 18 months after the request when the lawsuit was filed by the Iowa ACLU on behalf of journalists. The attorney for the governor, Eric Wessan, says the administration followed the law because it never denied the request. “In order to find a violation, there has to be a refusal. There was no refusal here, as is evidenced by the fact that Governor produced all of the responsive records,” Wessan says.

Chief Justice Susan Christensen says this approach could require anyone who requested open records to eventually hire a lawyer to get an agency to comply. She says that could be expensive and some people could not afford to do that. “What can someone do not have to hire a lawyer to make it happen?,” Christenson asked. “To avoid hiring a lawyer, an individual requester can try to clarify a timeline. They can say, can you turn this over in a certain period of time?,” Wessan responded.

The attorney for the ACLU, Thomas Story, says the state should not be allowed to stall and force a lawsuit. “The thing that is missing from the state’s argument is sort of the bottom line assumption of these laws, which is that public records are the public’s records,” He says. “The state is holding them for us. Right. They’re a trustee and that means that they have a duty to provide them to the public promptly upon request.” Wessan says it’s an important part of democracy.

Wessan says the governor’s office gave very little response to the records request other than to acknowledged they received the request. He says there should be some reason given for not producing the records. “That’s the test right, what about the size. Did it ask for voluminous records. What about the nature? Did it require substantial review and redactions? these are things we are asking about. I am not asking the governor’s office to tell me about everything it was doing,” Story says. He says the strategy was to delay and force a lawsuit. “This was just straight ignored by the lawful custodian at the highest level of government.” he says.

The Supreme Court will issue its ruling at a later date.